Human Rights Watch: Free Speech in Asia Took a Beating in 2020

Shailaja Neelakantan
Washington
2021-01-13
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Human Rights Watch: Free Speech in Asia Took a Beating in 2020 Filipino activists and relatives of people killed in the country’s war on drugs hold a rally in observance of Human Rights Day, in Manila, Dec. 10, 2019.
Reuters

 Updated at  1:40 p.m. ET on 2021-01-13

Free speech was curtailed in many countries in South and Southeast Asia as governments moved to silence critics in the year of a global pandemic, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report for 2020 released Wednesday.

Freedom of the press in particular took a hit in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand – all BenarNews target countries – as they and other nations reeled from the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, New York-based HRW said.

In addition, Thailand increased repression of basic rights by cracking down violently on a pro-democracy movement, and the Philippine government used the pandemic as a pretext to expand its bloody war on drugs, the watchdog said.

In Bangladesh, “authorities arrested journalists, artists, students, doctors, political opposition members and activists who spoke out against the government’s response to the pandemic, or otherwise criticized the ruling party,” Human Rights Watch reported in its annual review of rights practices worldwide.

“The ruling Awami League showed in 2020 that it will stop at almost nothing to maintain its grip on authoritarian control, even in the face of a global pandemic,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement with the release of HRW’s World Report 2021.

Arrests under Bangladesh’s “abusive” Digital Security Act shot up, and police even arrested a child for allegedly defaming the prime minister in a Facebook post, the rights watchdog said.

Bangladesh’s government “needs to stop worrying about cartoonists and kids criticizing the Prime Minister on Facebook, and start worrying about abuses by its own authorities amid the pandemic,” Adams said.

Responding to the report, Bangladeshi Home Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denied that the government had clamped down on free speech in 2020. The digital law, he said, was needed to ensure a safe online space.

“If there was no freedom of speech, how is it that over 50 private TV channels, thousands of newspapers and hundreds of news websites operate from Bangladesh,” Khan told BenarNews.

“The government promotes a digital Bangladesh, so we need … a Digital Security Act for a secure digital world. If anyone breaches the law, law enforcement agencies will take legal action.”

In Indonesia, four news organizations were subject to hacking and other digital attacks after publishing critical stories about military involvement in pushing a COVID-19 vaccine, Human Rights Watch said.

The government and police also targeted journalists and environmental activists in the archipelago-nation, the report said.

HRW cited examples of how journalist Diananta Sumedi was jailed for three months for writing articles about a land dispute between indigenous people and an oil company; and how police arrested three student-journalists after they joined a protest by fishermen against sand mining.

In neighboring Malaysia, “freedom of expression came under attack” when authorities investigated activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri for alleged sedition for organizing a protest against how the government of Muyhiddin Yassin came to power. His unelected government was installed last year after the previous government collapsed.

“Since then, authorities have opened investigations into numerous activists and opposition politicians for speech critical of the government. The police had opened 262 investigations into the spread of ‘false and seditious news’ as of May 11, and 264 investigations into ‘false news’ on COVID-19,” HRW’s report said.

The government also sought to hold online news portals responsible for comments posted by their readers, the rights watchdog noted.

It was referring to contempt of court proceedings against Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini, after some readers had posted online comments critical of the country’s judiciary on an article published by the news site.

A verdict in this case is expected on Friday.

Prosecutions under sedition

In the Philippines, “the media also came under renewed attack,” HRW’s report said.

The June conviction of crusading Philippine journalist Maria Ressa “on politically motivated charges of cyber libel stemming from Rappler’s persistent reporting on the ‘drug war,’” was one such attack, HRW said.

A month later, the Philippine Congress voted not to extend the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network, “which had often criticized the government’s ‘drug war,’ forcing the network’s closure,” the report added.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the government “the government routinely enforced censorship, including on social media platforms, blocking and punishing opinions the authorities deemed critical of the monarchy,” amid huge pro-democracy protests that began last July, HRW said.

“As of December, at least 35 people, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged under article 112 of the penal code [insulting the monarchy] for demanding reform of the monarchy, or saying or writing or doing anything the authorities considered offensive to the monarchy,” the report said.

Critics of the monarchy were also prosecuted under sedition, cybercrime, and other legal provisions, it added.

Last month, the teenager and a fellow activist were charged in Bangkok for allegedly violating Thailand’s strict royal defamation law by performing in a satirical street show that poked fun at the monarchy during a pro-democracy protest.

“The Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, censored news and social media, and punished critical political speech,” Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should stop ignoring the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”

Thai crackdown

In 2020, the Thai government also “escalated its repression of basic rights” in the face of a growing, youth-led democracy movement demanding political and constitutional reforms, Human Rights Watch said.

Protests, which began in July, called for the removal of the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the drafting of a new constitution, and curbs on the king’s powers.

In October, Thai riot police turned water cannons mixed with a chemical dye that can irritate skin at pro-democracy demonstrators, after thousands gathered in Bangkok to defy a state of emergency in the city.

The next month, dozens of people were injured, including some with bullets from shots fired by unidentified gunmen, after thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashed with police and royalists in Bangkok.

“The Thai government has responded to peaceful demands from youth for sweeping political reforms by making Thailand’s human rights crisis go from bad to worse,” Adams said.

A government spokesman said it had never suppressed free speech when protests were peaceful.

“The government supports expressions that are not aggressive, that are inoffensive, not hateful and don’t cause conflicts,” spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told BenarNews on Wednesday.

“The government is open to exchanging opinions within the frame of the law. However, we have to take legal action when protesters violate the law.”

Philippine drug war

Killings related to the anti-drug campaign in the Philippines increased “dramatically” soon after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered general COVID-19 quarantines for many densely populated areas, Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for HRW, said in September.

Police killed 50 percent more people between April and July 2020 than they did in the previous four-month period,” he said on HRW’s website.

“The Duterte administration appeared to take advantage of COVID-19 curfews in 2020 to expand its gruesome and bloody ‘war on drugs,’” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“As respect for human rights in the Philippines spirals downwards, concerned governments, and U.N. agencies will need to press the Duterte government harder to halt its atrocities and hold those responsible to account,” Robertson said.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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